GENOESE PESTO: WHICH PASTA, HOW TO USE IT AND HOW TO COOK IT
So loved as to have become one of the symbols of Genoa, pesto is a cold sauce mainly used to season pasta.
The key ingredient is certainly basil (obligatorily local), whose fresh leaves are crushed together with oil, garlic, salt, pine nuts and grated seasoned cheese (which type of cheese is at the discretion of the family recipe).
Which pasta to use with Genoese Pesto
The strong local characterisation of this sauce, apart from the uniqueness of Genoese basil which has such a flavour that can only be experienced in Genoa, is also due to the important development of the pasta industry in Liguria thanks to the city's almost monopoly position in the wheat trade from the Black Sea back in the Middle Ages when it was one of the Maritime Republics: this meant that pasta was the daily dish of the Genoese in the modern age, with the consequent need for a dressing; at first a simple beaten garlic and cheese (or even just oil and cacio cheese) and then over time it became the pesto we know today. Similarly, a tradition of typical local pasta shapes was created, some of which became inextricably linked with pesto.
With pesto, potatoes and green beans... what could be more typical of Genoa? Trenette are a long, dry pasta format similar to linguine, but instead of having a flat shape, they have an ovoid section. Trenette can also be prepared in their 'avvantaggiate' version, which, contrary to popular belief, are not trenette with potatoes and green beans but are trenette made with a whole-wheat (or semi whole-wheat) dough. Trenette al pesto became even more famous worldwide after their appearance in Pixar's animated feature film 'Luca', set in a fictional Ligurian seaside village and directed by Enrico Casarosa from Genoa.
Short pasta in the shape of a chip, typical of the towns of Golfo Paradiso (the area of the Riviera di Levante, which lies between the metropolitan area of Genoa and the promontory of Portofino). Trofie originated as a fresh, purely homemade, handmade pasta: their diffusion as artisanal pasta dates back only to a few decades ago, with the invention in the middle of the last century of machines suitable for the production of this format; in this way, trofie started to be diffused also in the rest of Liguria and in a short time, thanks to their combination with pesto, they became very famous all over Italy and even beyond the border. Like trenette, trofie can also be seasoned with pesto, potatoes and green beans. There is also a version of trofie made of chestnut flour (i.e. wholemeal) or with chestnut flour.
Genoese gnocchi are a fresh pasta made from potatoes and flour, so in theory they are not so different from other gnocchi produced in the rest of the world. It is the pesto sauce that makes them special, so much so that in Genoa if you say 'a plate of gnocchi' you mean directly 'a plate of potato gnocchi served with pesto'. What makes this combination unique is the perfect fusion of textures and flavours: the velvety flavour of the gnocchi finds its ideal counterpoint in the aromatic savouriness of the Genovese pesto, and similarly the natural creaminess of the pesto marries beautifully with the softness of the gnocchi. Potato gnocchi yields less after cooking than all other fresh pasta, so when you do your shopping calculate at least 250 grams of gnocchi and 60 grams pesto per person.
Thin sheets of pasta with a square or rectangular shape, they can be fresh or dried. In Genoa they are also known as 'mandilli de sæa' (silk handkerchiefs) and are served - as well as with pesto - with the traditional meat sauce (tuccu) or mushroom sauce. In the 19th century, it was the custom to cook lasagne in broth, to be brought to the table in a soup tureen and then served with sausage and lots of grated Parmesan cheese: we have evidence of this in Emanuele Rossi's 1865 Genoese cookbook. In ancient times, the name 'lasagne' probably also indicated another type of pasta that resembled wide noodles.
We are on the borders of Liguria, the extreme eastern part known as Lunigiana, and also on the borders between pasta and bread because testarolo is made from dough cooked in a wood-fired oven inside a testo but then ends up seasoned with pesto after a very quick passage in boiling water (maximum one minute). The pans are large and circular in shape, which is why testarolo is portioned into squares before cooking in the pan. The result on the plate is unique, truly something different in flavour and texture. The fact that it is a little bit pasta and a little bit bread is also pointed out to us by the fact that there are other local versions (of similar preparation and names) in which the dough cooked in the testo is finally stuffed like a sandwich.
We should certainly mention croxetti, the moulded pasta resembling a coin, typical of the Levante region, which can also be dressed with a pine-nut and marjoram sauce. There are also specific Ligurian pasta shapes for minestrone with pesto, namely scuccusù (small balls of semolina) and bricchetti (which resemble broken spaghetti); these soup pasta shapes are cooked until they have absorbed all the liquid from the minestrone, giving it the right consistency: the desired result is that if we plunge the spoon into the dish of a minestrone alla genovese made with all the rules, the spoon should remain straight up.
How to use Genoese Pesto
Its main use is as a condiment for pasta, having become a popular recipe in the city thanks to the parallel expansion of the pasta industry in Liguria during the modern era, given the great availability of wheat arriving in port from the Black Sea. Pesto is used raw as a cold sauce and at most can be diluted with a little cooking water from the pasta; however, it is absolutely not recommended - if not outright forbidden - to cook it: just right in baked lasagne, minimal use of heat can be tolerated. The recommended amount of pesto for each portion of pasta is about fifty to sixty grams.
Remaining still in the category of first courses, another famous local recipe in which one of the main ingredients is pesto, is minestrone: minestrone genovese is distinguished from other soups by its very dense and dry consistency, its lukewarm serving temperature and, precisely, its seasoning with pesto, which then characterises it with its typical flavour. Lately, Genovese pesto has become one of the most popular gourmet ingredients for pizzas, chosen by the most famous Neapolitan pizza makers: it is always added raw, on white or red pizzas, as they come out of the oven; in some Genovese pizzerias you can also taste versions in which pesto is put on the pizza before cooking, but in this case most often the sauce is diluted with fresh cheese to prevent the pesto from drying out too much. In addition to pizza, it is also excellent inside sandwiches and panini, e.g. 'caprese' with mozzarella and fresh tomatoes.
How to cook Genoese Pesto
In principle, it is not 'cooked', as the term 'cooking' implies heat, and pesto is a ready-made condiment that is used raw, as we have already mentioned several times. It is easy enough to make at home - it is not obligatory to have a mortar, even a blender is fine - but what makes the preparation complicated for those who live outside Genoa is the availability of basil, which must be fresh and local: using a non-Genoese basil can be a patch, if you can't do otherwise, but it completely distorts the taste so much that it would no longer even make sense to call it 'pesto genovese'. The other basic ingredients are oil, garlic, salt, pine nuts and grated seasoned cheese.
Usually a bunch of basil yields a quantity of sauce equivalent to one or two servings: the balance between the various ingredients in the recipe is so conditioned by the personal taste one is brought up with that one cannot find a Genoese who agrees with the other on proportions (e.g. how much pecorino to use), and everyone has their own favourite recipe; In the same way, it would be sterile to impose one's own standard on a recipe that has undergone so many contaminations and that has found its own fairly clear physiognomy in recent times, ultimately only in the last century (just think that in the Genoese cookbooks of the mid-19th century one can still read that marjoram or parsley can be used instead of basil, something that today would rightly be considered an unforgivable heresy).